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A database is

[i]nformation that is normally structured and indexed for user access and review. Databases may exist in the form of physical files (folders, documents, etc.) or formatted automated data processing system data files.[1]
[a] repository of information that usually holds plantwide information including process data, recipes, personnel data, and financial data.[2]

U.S. copyright law[]

For purposes of copyright registration, a database is

a compilation of digital information comprised of data, information, abstracts, images, maps, music, sound recordings, video, other digitized material, or references to a particular subject or subjects. In all cases, the content of a database must be arranged in a systematic manner and it must be accessed by means of an integrated information retrieval program or system with the following characteristics: (i) a query function must be used to access the content; and (ii) the information retrieval program or system must yield a subset of the content or it must organize the content based on the parameters specified in each query.[3]


Databases have always been commodities of both commercial value and social utility, ranging from their early incarnation in the 18th century as directories compiled by walking door to door to the late 20th century compendiums of millions of items in electronic form.

The question of whether and how databases should be protected by the law has never been easy, as it necessarily involves finding a balance between two potentially conflicting societal goals: the goal of providing adequate incentives for their continued production, and the goal of ensuring public access to the information they contain. At different points in time, and in different societies, that balance has been struck in different ways.

Electronic database[]

An electronic database is a structured collection of records or data that is stored in a computer system so that a computer program or person using a query language can consult it to answer queries. The records retrieved in answer to queries are information that can be used to make decisions. The computer program used to manage and query a database is known as a database management system (DBMS).

The central concept of a database is that of a collection of records, or pieces of information. Typically, for a given database, there is a structural description of the type of facts held in that database: this description is known as a schema. The schema describes the objects that are represented in the database, and the relationships among them. There are a number of different ways of organizing a schema, that is, of modeling the database structure: these are known as database models (or data models). The model in most common use today is the relational model, which in layman's terms represents all information in the form of multiple, related tables each consisting of rows and columns (the formal definition uses mathematical terminology). This model represents relationships by the use of values common to more than one table. Other models such as the hierarchical model and the network model use a more explicit representation of relationships.

The term "database" refers to the collection of related records, and the software should be referred to as the "database management system" or "DBMS." When the context is ambiguous, however, many database administrators and programmers use the term database to cover both meanings.

Many professionals consider a collection of data to constitute a database only if it has certain properties: for example, if the data is managed to ensure its integrity and quality, if it allows shared access by a community of users, if it has a schema, or if it supports a query language. However, there is no definition of these properties that is universally agreed upon.

EU Database Directive[]

Under the EU Database Directive, the term "database" is defined as “a collection of independent works, data or other materials arranged in a systematic or methodical way and individually accessible by electronic or other means.”[4] Explicitly excluded from protection under the directive are “computer programs used in the making or operation of databases accessible by electronic means.”[5] Recital (17) expands on the definition:

[T]he term “database” should be understood to include literary, artistic, musical or other collections of works or collections of other material such as texts, sound, images, numbers, facts, and data; . . . it should cover collections of independent works, data or other materials which are systematically or methodically arranged and can be individually accessed; . . . this means that a recording or an audiovisual, cinematographic, literary or musical work as such does not fall within the scope of this Directive.

Database protection[]

Copyright. Copyright protection of databases, if it exists at all, is very thin. As a result, database producers have adopted three main strategies to protect against unauthorized use of their products: (1) enhancing copyright protection by altering the structure or content of their databases to incorporate greater creativity; (2) increasing reliance on contracts; and (3) employing technological safeguards to prevent unauthorized access and use.

Enhancing copyright protection may entail either adding copyrightable text or altering the selection and arrangement of the database to make it more creative. Both approaches increase the likelihood that the database as a whole will be copyrightable, but are limited in their utility as means to prevent copying of the factual components of a database. In addition, depending on the type of database, these approaches may make the database more expensive to produce and/or less valuable to a user seeking a comprehensive, easy to access collection of unadorned facts.

Contracts. Contracts are a major source of protection for database producers, both form contracts and negotiated agreements. They appear in a variety of print and electronic formats. Typically contracts are used to restrict access, specify permissible conditions of use, and set terms for enforcement and remedies. Different companies provide different types of price structures. It is fairly standard for producers to engage in differential pricing, charging reduced fees to non-profit and educational institutions.

Technology. Technological safeguards supplement legal protection for electronic databases. To the extent that they are used, it is in combination with licensing and enforcement of legal rights. The technological safeguards in use today are simple or low-end measures such as passwords. More sophisticated cryptography-based systems are likely to be adopted in the future, and used in conjunction with secure electronic transfer of funds and “click-wrap” licenses. Producers will not rely solely on technological measures, however, given the security problems of technological "break-ins" and the inability to control subsequent use of decrypted products.


  1. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Pub. 1–02: DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Nov. 8, 2010, as amended through May 15, 2011) (full-text).
  2. NIST Special Publication 800-82, at B-2.
  3. Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, Glossary, at 4.
  4. Directive 96/9/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of the European Union of 11 March 1996 on the legal protection of databases, 1996 O.J. (L 77/20), art. 1(2).
  5. Id. art. 1(3).

See also[]

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